I've been cleaning my childhood bedroom out a bit and in my desk drawer came across my yearbook from my last year of high school. I was flipping through when I came across a photographic montage - a two page spread which I helped collate all those years ago - and smiling out at me were the faces of two classmates who have since passed away. They were so young in those photos, with so much ahead of them. At least, they should have had so much ahead of them.
I was close with neither Mat nor Eva, although both ran in the same crowd, which was loosely attached to my (dorkier) crowd. They weren't so high above my friends and I that they would ignore us or make us feel we weren't worthy of breathing the same air as them with a single glance like the cool kids did, and although not really friends with them our paths would cross in the playground and, in later years, at parties.
Mat was in my Chinese class for years and I had a tiny crush on him in year eight. He was one of those guys that just shouldn't have died young. He was smart and funny and sporty and kind and cheeky and was no doubt destined for great things. He had spectacularly curly, dark hair, a dimple and a very slight lisp. To cap it all off he was dating probably the sweetest girl to ever walk this earth, Petrea. The yearbook tells me that at the time they were the most inseparable couple in the year level.
I don't think they were still an item when he died but I'm pretty sure they were still best friends, and that she had to bury two of her best friends within the first eight years of leaving high school is just grossly unfair. Mat's best friend Jason, who was also the son of a favourite teacher at our school, had been travelling with him just before he died, gave a eulogy... and within about four years also had to bury his brother who died in a car accent.
Mat died while travelling in South America. I don't know what country or the exact circumstances, although the grape vine told me that he had been travelling alone in a fairly remote area and when nobody heard from him in a few days they raised the alarm with DFAT. Eventually a tour operator got wind of a white guy who had been found by some villagers in a river, and they had given him a proper burial. It would seem he had slipped, hit his head on a rock and drowned.
I don't know how long it was between him going missing and his funeral, that around 6-800 attended. It was at least a couple of weeks and longer than it should have been because he had to be identified and shipped home. If it felt like forever to me then I can't even imagine what waiting must have been like for his loved ones.
Eva died in the Black Saturday bush fires, along with both of her parents. I believe Kinglake address listed in the yearbook is the house they died in. Her brother wasn't home that day and in the space of a couple of hours he lost his entire family as well as his best friend.
Eva's dad, Richard Zann, was a greatly respected scientist specialising in animal behaviour with a special affinity towards zebra finches and other birds. He was also one of my university lecturers, an odd, quietly intelligent man who taught me statistics - not my favourite subject!
At their memorial service I felt guilty when I realised Eva had joined our school in Year 4 and not Year 7 as I had thought. How could I have just not remembered three years of her life?? That Dr Zann's passing was a bigger thing to me (maybe because if the added layer of it being a massive loss to the scientific community) than the loss of Eva also made me feel awful, and wasn't something I even realised until afterwards. But as I said, I was never close to Eva and I shouldn't feel bad for that.
I don't feel like I have the right to be touched like this just by opening an old book... but I have been crying like a baby the whole time I have been writing this. I just feel so badly for that wonderful group of humans that were their friends. I hope they don't have to endure much more pain because it doesn't seem fair. But I guess life isn't fair. I also hope that if they are reading this that they are not offended that I shared something so personal to them with you.
Another student passed away somewhere between Mat and Eva. It was suicide, and the news was whispered around quietly and then forgotten. There was no mass funeral, no outpouring of grief for Ben (the second Ben we lost - the first died of cancer in Year 12) or sympathy for his family. I scarcely remember him except that he was fairly quiet and would blush easily. I vaguely recall that he had a temper, wasn't a good student and had the most brilliant blue, but sad, eyes I have ever seen but that's it. In some ways, his passing is more tragic than Mat and Eva's.
One day in Chinese class, Mat was sitting with his friend Nathan in front of my friend Kaye and I and tormenting us playfully as he was wont to do. Suddenly he turned to me and said "do you like Reid?" (Um, yes. Big, fat, embarrassing, ridiculous crush. But c'mon, he was a hottie!) When I admitted it - an humiliating moment for an overweight, thoroughly uncool Year 8 girl - he said "but how can you like him? You never even talk to him." I didn't know what to say but he was right. Wise words, and a piece of wisdom I have applied to several areas of my life since. I was also stunned to register that Mat thought the only thing wrong with the equation was that I didn't really know Reid, and that the invisible barrier between dorks and the rest of the world could apparently be breached just by speaking to someone, which was news to me.
Thanks, Mat. I won't forget that. I'm sorry that you're gone and I hope you and Eva and Ben are all okay and happy, wherever you are. I am sure you are all missed by many, and I'm quite sure the world missed out on something great when you left it.